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Copyright is the exclusive legal right to reproduce, publish, sell, or distribute the matter and form of something.

Overview - U.S. Copyright Act

The U.S. Copyright Act, (codified at 17 U.S.C. §§ 101 - 810), is federal legislation which protects the writings of authors. Note that advancements in technology have led to an ever expanding understanding of the word "writings." The Copyright Act now reaches architectural design, software, the graphic arts, motion pictures, and sound recordings and more. All works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression and within the subject matter of copyright were deemed to fall within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Copyright Act regardless of whether the work was created before or after that date and whether published or unpublished.

Under § 102, copyright protection exists in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. 

Derivative Works

Under § 106, the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. 

Fair Works

Under § 107, the exclusive rights of the copyright owner are subject to limitation by the doctrine of "fair use." Fair use of a copyrighted work for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research is not copyright infringement. To determine whether a particular use qualifies as fair use, courts apply the multi-factor balancing test from § 107.

Limits on Copyright Protection

Copyright protection does not extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. For example, if a book is written describing a new system of bookkeeping, copyright protection only extends to the author's description of the bookkeeping system; it does not protect the system itself. This view was expressed in Baker v. Selden, 101 U.S. 99 (1879).

In addition to being independently created by the author, to qualify for copyright protection a work must also exhibit a minimum of originality. In Feist Publications v. Rural Telephone Service, 499 U.S. 340 (1991), the Supreme Court held that a work must have "some minimal degree of creativity." Thus, a mere alphabetical list of data is not protected, but other original aspects of the work (page layout, design, format, or even the specific selection of data points) might be. This underscores the idea that information itself is not copyrightable, only the specific arrangements or presentations of it.

Copyright Registration

According to the Copyright Act of 1976, registration of copyright is voluntary and may take place at any time during the term of protection. See § 408.  Although registration of a work with the Copyright Office is not a precondition for protection, under § 411, an action for copyright infringement may not be commenced until the copyright has been formally registered with the Copyright Office.

Deposit Requirement

Deposit of copies with the Copyright Office for use by the Library of Congress is a separate requirement from registration. Under § 407, failure to comply with the deposit requirement within three months of publication of the protected work may result in a civil fine. The Register of Copyrights may exempt certain categories of material from the deposit requirement.

Copyright Notice

In 1989 the U.S. joined the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works. In accordance with the requirements of the Berne Convention, copyright notice is no longer a condition of protection for works published after March 1, 1989. This change to the notice requirement applies only prospectively to copies of works publicly distributed after after March 1, 1989.

However, lack of notice might be a relevant factor in determining the merits of an innocent infringement defense. See § 401(d).

The Berne Convention also modified the rule making copyright registration a precondition to commencing a lawsuit for infringement. For works originating from a Berne Convention country, an infringement action may be initiated without registering the work with the U.S. Copyright Office. However, for works of U.S. origin, registration prior to filing suit is still required.

The federal agency charged with administering the act is the Copyright Office of the Library of Congress. See § 701 of the act. Its regulations are found in Parts 201 - 204 of title 37 of the Code of Federal Regulations.

Federal Material

U.S. Constitution and Federal Statutes
  • U.S. Copyright Act
  • CRS Annotated Constitution
Federal Agency Regulations
Federal Judicial Decisions
  • Selected Historic Copyright Decisions
  • liibulletin Oral Argument Previews

International Material

Conventions and Treaties
  • Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works
  • Universal Copyright Convention
  • Convention for the Protection of Producers of Phonograms
  • International Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations
  • GATT 1994 (including the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property)

Federal Agencies:

  • U.S. Copyright Office
    • Forms
  • US Patent and Trademark Office
  • CENDI Copyright FAQ (Commerce, Energy, NASA, Defense Information Managers Group)
  • Copyright Clearance Center
  • Report of NII Working Group on Intellectual Property

Additional Resources: 

  • Coalition for Networked Information
  • Association of Research Libraries Copyright and Intellectual Policy
  • European Union Directives on Copyright and Related Material from the EU Legal Advisory Board
  • World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO)
  • Database of Intellectual Property Laws
  • ABA Section of Intellectual Property Law
  • Copyright Advisory Network Tools
  • Senate Judiciary Committee
  • House Judiciary Committee (includes information from Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property)
  • American Intellectual Property Law Association
  • LII Downloads

[Last updated in July of 2022 by the Wex Definitions Team]